This past Fourth of July holiday was probably the weirdest one I’ve ever experienced. Shortly before that weekend of obligatory celebration, my father had a back operation. Minutes before my father had a back operation, my mother fell into his gurney outside of pre-op and broke her knee, requiring her to check in for a knee replacement. So I spent the week prior to the Fourth of July weekend in and around a hospital in Philadelphia.
This hospital, being the oldest in the U.S.A., was situated in the heart of Old Philadelphia, just blocks from early Americana like the Liberty Bell and the American Philosophical Society. In the other direction were the pleasantries of your typical well-moneyed urban neighborhood–a Whole Foods, a juice bar, cute couples on foot, and a ton of charming architecture. When I wasn’t tending to my parents’ post-op struggles, I spent a lot of time just drinking in the environment around me.
I should add that neither I or my parents actually live in or around Philadelphia. The city attracts patients from unfortunate towns all over the state, places where waiting room stays last for hours, choices for medical services are few, and doctors routinely misdiagnose patients, causing infections to worsen or sickness to death (I am convinced that these dying industrial towns are the new third world, but that’s another subject entirely). My elderly parents live in one of these bankrupt places, routinely driving two hours to the nearest big city for their medical services.
That’s how I ended up spending a week in the nation’s first capital, in a hotel at its old Navy Yards, occupying a room that my mother had intended to stay in during my father’s recovery from back surgery. My father had been stationed at those Navy Yards in the fifties. I wandered miles of the now industrial complex after visiting hours ended at the hospital, studying dormant officers’ houses, barracks-turned-art studios, abandoned docks, and gigantic retired war vessels.
During my days I wandered in and around Pennsylvania Hospital. While my parents napped, I walked through a street fair where I saw a pogo competition. At the American Philosophical Society I saw a page from Lewis and Clark’s journals and a bust of Thomas Jefferson. At the hospital I saw a lot of the first-floor cafeteria and my mother’s nakedness (I hate hospital gowns). On Broad Street I saw an old furrier—not sure if it’s still in business—with faded bluish glossy pics of women in fur coats on otherwise empty walls behind dirty windows. I saw an old restaurant and lounge—definitely no longer in business—with a florescent tube light sign boasting air conditioning. I saw a strange little BMW, met a crazy lady with bright red lipstick. I tried a new Cliff bar. I took the stairs at the hospital, seven marble flights. I remained occupied.
That is what you do when you have nothing else to do but wait and watch.
I’d been in that position before, in a hospital, cringing at the sight of my parents’ bodily fluids and frailty. But this time around I was a better hospital, in a better place, which was in a holiday spirit. I was able to cope with the mess and the sad fact that my Mom and Dad are falling apart. Every night, from my hotel window, I could see brilliant fireworks displays. I took pictures of them and of everything else I described above and showed them to my parents in their matching hospital beds as they came in and out of post-op pain.
Such is the irony of life, I suppose.